Books

Bleeding from Strange Places

Joan Didion Is the Most Ruthless Writer to Ever Write About Joan Didion

Bleeding from Strange Places

Brigitte Lacombe

JOAN DIDION Her giant hands at rest.

  • comments (12)
  • Print

Joan Didion could never make a baby, but she sure has made a lot of books. They just keep shooting out of her—out of those giant hands. The writing in her earliest nonfiction books (1968's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1979's The White Album, 1992's After Henry) is so powerful, it's as if nature made it, as if it came from the sky, as if it's part lightning.

But being a mother didn't come nearly as naturally. In 1966, a baby was handed to her, was adopted, and was raised "as a doll," Didion admits in her new memoir, Blue Nights. Quintana Roo, named after a place Didion and her husband saw on a map, was an eccentric kid who grew up troubled, with various diagnoses of mental illness and possibly a drinking problem, and by her late 30s was in and out of hospitals, falling into comas, seized with septic shock, stricken with acute pancreatitis—a freak-show cascade of medical crises that figures into the background of Didion's 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. The main event of that book is Didion's husband falling over dead at the dinner table. Quintana, in the background, constantly coming to in one hospital or another and forgetting everything, is so out of it that she has to be told three separate times that her dad has died.

Quintana was still alive by the time Didion finished The Year of Magical Thinking, but she was dead before the book tour. According to Blue Nights, Didion placed her dead 39-year-old daughter's ashes in a marble wall, the same marble wall she'd placed her husband's ashes in, and a week later—when any human being would beg off public appearances, citing the need for privacy—Didion set out on a 10-city publicity whirlwind, including a trip to Seattle, where she stood fixedly at a podium and gave a reading without taking off her purse.

Obviously, privacy has never been a big thing for her. This is the woman who, in The White Album, published the text of her own psychiatric report. With The Year of Magical Thinking, an unexpected best seller and it's-about-time award-winner, she went from being someone graduate writing students adore to someone your mom has heard of. "With Magical Thinking, suddenly people were speaking to me in airports, and usually they had some really terrible thing that had happened," is how she put it in a recent interview I found on YouTube.

Good thing the public's appetite for dark, embarrassing stories about well-known people is unquenchable, because the older she gets (she turned 77 this week) and the more well-known she's become, the more her life has filled with dark embarrassments. There's the scene in Blue Nights where Didion collapses on the street before Quintana's wedding and, while being "transfused for an unexplained gastrointestinal bleed," is told by the doctors she has to swallow a very small camera. "Since I had never in my life been able to swallow an aspirin it seemed unlikely that I could swallow a camera," she writes. "In the end, I did swallow the very little camera, and the very little camera transmitted the desired images, which did not demonstrate what was causing the bleed but did demonstrate that with sufficient sedation anyone could swallow a very little camera."

There's a scene where she describes her vision being blocked by what looks like "black lace" that turns out to be blood, and another scene where she's in a folding chair, unable to move, unable to get up, and begins to panic.

Most distressingly, there's the scene that begins with her on the street, walking home from dinner, and the next thing she knows she's

on the floor of my bedroom, left arm and forehead and both legs bleeding, unable to get up. It seemed clear that I had fallen, but I had no memory of falling, no memory whatsoever of losing balance, trying to regain it, the usual preludes to a fall. Certainly I had no memory of losing consciousness. The diagnostic term for what had happened (I was to learn before the night ended) was "syncope," fainting, but discussions of "syncope," centering as they did on "pre-syncope symptoms" (palpitations, light-headedness, dizziness, blurred or tunnel vision), none of which I could identify, seemed not to apply.
I had been alone in the apartment.
There were thirteen telephones in the apartment, not one of which was at that moment within reach.
I remember lying on the floor and trying to visualize the unreachable telephones, count them off room by room.
I remember forgetting one room and counting off the telephones a second and a third time.
This was dangerously soothing.
I remember deciding in the absence of any prospect of help to go back to sleep for a while, on the floor, the blood pooling around me.

This is a scene you can't imagine in the voice of any other writer. (Also hard to imagine: 13 telephones.) But it has to be said that most of the book is not like this: Most of the book consists of Joan Didion walking around her apartment pulling open drawers and looking into closets and recalling things. As Didion has started to come apart physically, her famous rhetorical strictness has started to come apart a bit, too. Gone is that sharp cerebral sting you used to get at the end of a great Didion tear, like your brain was at the business end of a cracked whip. What she might have done as an essay before is now book-length, padded out with increasingly elliptical and diffuse material, tangents that don't always add up, almost like she perpetually can't remember what she was about to say. Blue Nights is an assortment of fragments.

And for a writer who used to wield bluntness like a bazooka, she's uncharacteristically roundabout on certain topics. I had to read in a book review of Blue Nights, after reading Blue Nights myself, that the book deals with Quintana's drinking problem, because it is discussed only once in all 188 pages, as I found when I read it a second time. Here is the entire discussion of it: "She was depressed. She was anxious. Because she was depressed and because she was anxious she drank too much. This was called medicating herself. Alcohol has its well-known defects as a medication for depression but no one has ever suggested—ask any doctor—that it is not the most effective anti-anxiety agent yet known." That's it.

Maybe it's just the subject matter. As Didion writes elsewhere: "Quintana is one of the areas about which I have difficulty being direct." In lieu of directness, we get a spray of brand names and place names and celebrity-friend names, a whole litany of incidents and icy understatements and bitchy comebacks. Many of the points she makes fall into one of two camps: self-laceration (she doesn't think she was a good mother) or defensiveness (she tries to smack around people who say Quintana grew up privileged, even though Quintana clearly grew up privileged). The narrative may lack the old force, but within the fragments are multiple scenes of wry, aggressive, vintage Didion doing that thing her readers love to watch her do, which is dress down idiots—paragraphs that basically go: Something, something, fuck you, something, something, shove it, something, something. She's still got it. She may have lost her husband and her daughter and her physical strength, but she has not lost her mind. She's alive. She's living. She lives. recommended

 

Comments (12) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
1
well done, excellent review, thanks!
Posted by wseacat on December 8, 2011 at 8:39 AM · Report this
2
Now I want to read (and re-read) every book she's ever written.
Posted by tacomagirl on December 8, 2011 at 8:56 AM · Report this
seandr 3
I love Joan Didion. I'm afraid to read her last two books.

P.S. "The Women's Movement" in The White Album should be mandatory reading in every Women's Studies department in the country.
Posted by seandr on December 8, 2011 at 9:19 AM · Report this
4
I love this. Thank you.
Posted by poenoel on December 8, 2011 at 9:25 AM · Report this
Quintus Slide 5
Nicely done, Mr. Frizzelle.
Posted by Quintus Slide on December 8, 2011 at 9:41 AM · Report this
The Accidental Theologist 6
"That sharp cerebral sting you used to get at the end of a great Didion tear, like your brain was at the business end of a cracked whip" -- brilliant. Thanks for finding those words, Paul.
Posted by The Accidental Theologist http://accidentaltheologist.com on December 8, 2011 at 9:55 AM · Report this
MichaelPgh 7
Now THAT'S a review. Great job.
Posted by MichaelPgh http://www.facebook.com/michael.west.pgh on December 8, 2011 at 10:22 AM · Report this
8
OK, I simply have to read this book. I reckon that's one indication of a superb review...right? Thanks.
Posted by dmitch on December 8, 2011 at 10:50 AM · Report this
9
So I first read The Year of Magical Thinking without knowing what it was about (and trapped on an airplane, so I couldn't transition to other reading when I needed a break). In retrospect, perhaps it wasn't the best of her books to read first. Which one should I pick up now?
Posted by sahara29 on December 8, 2011 at 11:02 AM · Report this
RobCrowe9 10
Nice review, with descriptions of Didion's work that resonate. However, some of us--perhaps older that you Christopher!--did learn about The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem from our mothers (or their bookshelves). It may have been a weird window in literate America, since most of our history, to be write home truths and be read extensively, it is mandatory to be funny (i.e. Mark Twain). And we now show little tolerance for the subtleties Didion displays. But she did not by any means occupy a literary ghetto before her memoirs.

I also have to register my discomfort with the phrase "wield bluntness like a bazooka." Since bazookas are nothing more than a tube with ordnance, they are hardly precise or measured weapons. The usual word, "scalpel", of course is a cliche and, in this context, a little too close to the topic at hand for comfort. But then I quarrel with "bluntness" too. Didion is direct, but "blunt" connotes something flat and again without distinction. Yet one reads Didion to learn how to be cutting with words, but not messy in their impact. Not having read the most recent two--I am still waiting for the right space--I can't confirm your sense that she lost some control--who wouldn't?--but the description of her writing, with its emphasis on combativeness, not precision, may have been influenced by her own imprecision.
Posted by RobCrowe9 http://awidemargin.blogspot.com/ on December 8, 2011 at 12:41 PM · Report this
11
I liked this book but was disappointed she left so much out. We didn't learn anything about Quintana's husband or her marriage. And yes, I rolled my eyes when Joan tried to argue that Quintana didn't have a privileged upbringing. PLEASE! And her name-dropping here was annoying, just as it was in Magical Thinking, and even way back to the White Album. We know you're rich and famous; do you have to beat us over the head with it?

Good review.
Posted by TraylorDane on December 9, 2011 at 8:21 AM · Report this
12
Great book, great review.
Posted by rebelmama on January 5, 2012 at 9:26 PM · Report this

Add a comment

Most Commented in Books